Movie Review
I, Robot


2004

Director: Alex Proyas
Cast: Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, James Cromwell
F


ruth be told, I, Robot isn’t nearly as bad as it could be, though my expectations for the film were low enough that a few extra dialogue scenes in place of explosions were enough to propel it beyond simple mediocrity.

The real problem with the film is that I’ve seen it before and I’m positive you have too. It’s the one with the reckless cop who is certain that a rich and powerful man is up to no good even though he’s a respected member of the community. Of course, no one believes him, including his chief. Nevertheless, our hero is willing to defy even his boss in order to unmask the villain’s secret plans.


"Man, Madame Toussaud's has really lost its commitment to realism."


I, Robot simply transplants this cliché into a future civilization and trades in drug dealers for robots as the villains. In fact, so closely does the film adhere to this blueprint that it even includes a scene where the chief takes away the hero’s badge. In this case, the hero is Detective Spooner (Will Smith) whose distrust of robots runs so deep that it borders on clinical paranoia. Early in the film he chases down a robot he suspects is stealing a woman’s purse. Of course, this is the kind of movie where the main character misreads the robots actions (it actually is retrieving her asthma inhaler), overreacts and is later reprimanded down at the precinct.

Things soon change, though, when Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), who is the inventor of the current model of robots, winds up dead (apparently from suicide). A robot is discovered at the crime scene and Spooner uses the situation as an excuse to dig up a conspiracy involving the robots. At this point in the film I still felt anticipation for what came next. So intense is Spooner’s quest for the truth that I could ignore all the clichés and focus on the psychology.

The film grows even more intriguing with the addition of the robot Sonny (the one found hiding at the scene of Lanning’s death). Sonny has inexplicably learned human emotions and demonstrates both anger and compassion, much to the astonishment of Spooner. This revelation reminded me of the animé reworking of Metropolis both in the way one robot learns to be human and the way in which all robots were also put to work to make our lives more convenient. However, whereas that film put its robots in a sympathetic position that echoed the misery and persecution of the working class, I, Robot is content to just blow them up.

Yet, for a film that puts so much investment into its visuals, the action sequences fall flat. It’s even more of a letdown after viewing Spider-Man 2 (possibly the best movie of this year), which flawlessly integrated its action scenes into a complex narrative. Here they don’t seem justified and come off more as an excuse for special effects than any necessary way of advancing the narrative.

With this in mind, the movie’s set up is far more effective than the payoff. It doesn’t help that the trailers for the film already ruin the outcome. Would the film have been any better if we weren’t sure whether or not Spooner’s distrust is justified? It depends, I think, on one’s expectations for what the film should be.

As I said before, with my expectations so low I was surprised that the film even attempted to be intelligent in its setup. But think of what it might have been had we doubted Spooner’s assertions that Artificial Intelligence is dangerous. Now we have a movie that raises a thought-provoking issue.


"Sweet. I told her I was Steve McQueen and she just hopped on..."


To take it even further, what if he were wrong? What if there wasn’t any conspiracy? Well, then we’d have an entirely different film that would be more a case study of paranoia than a simple cinematic spectacle.

I’m not saying that an action film like this can’t work. Spider-Man 2 obviously did because it understood that a film’s foundation is in its characters. Only once a solid psychology has been established should the filmmaker consider the action sequences. If we have no vested interest in those characters than why should we care whether the outcome leaves that character fatally wounded?

I, Robot hints at that character development, but shies away from it. It’s as if it truly doesn’t understand its characters. I suppose as simple entertainment the film is satisfactory, but it lacks the charisma it would take to really excel as an action flick. It’s just more cut out for an exploration of human nature than as a big-budget fiasco.

The way I see it, if Sonny could come to understand human emotion, maybe some day screenwriters everywhere will soon grasp the complexity of human nature. However, such a claim presumes that most screenwriters today have the same output as sterile, automated machines. That certainly couldn’t be the case when you have films like I, Robot and Catwoman currently in theaters, could it?



By: Dave Micevic
2004-07-30


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